Colonies and Conversion

Boyarin’s Latest Foray Into the Anthropology of the Other

By Gordon Haber

Published February 03, 2010, issue of February 12, 2010.
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The Unconverted Self: Jews, Indians, and the Identity of Christian Europe
By Jonathan Boyarin
University of Chicago Press, 208 pages, $32.50.

Some years ago, on a lovely fall morning, I was walking across the Columbia University campus when I saw a group of students unfurl a huge banner that announced “Columbus=Hitler.” Since, at the time, I was teaching a course called “Logic and Rhetoric,” I thought it would be interesting to ask my own students what they thought about the slogan. To my surprise, most of them agreed that Columbus was in fact equivalent to Hitler, but only one could tell me how many Jews Hitler had slaughtered, and none could estimate how many Indians had died from Spanish imperialism.

My point is neither to defend Columbus nor to suggest we should evaluate historical figures with some kind of grim arithmetic. I only wish to point out that many of us have false assumptions about colonialism. Even professional historians have their working assumptions, one being that the nature of Christian Europe can be neatly demarcated by 1492. The conventional wisdom is that Europe found its “other,” its supposed opposite against which it could define itself, when it found the indigenous peoples of the New World. At least this is Jonathan Boyarin’s assertion in “The Unconverted Self: Jews, Indians, and the Identity of Christian Europe.” While Boyarin may be exaggerating the popularity of this assumption, he is quite correct to remind us that European Christians had been dealing with “others” — namely, Jews and Muslims — long before that greedy Italian navigator met the Arawaks of the Caribbean.

I should make clear that Boyarin’s book is less history than historiography. While there are some loaded words in the title (“Jews,” “Indians,” “Unconverted”), this is not a book for those who seek an indignant discussion of genocide or gory tidbits about the Inquisition. Nor is it a book for the casual student of history. Boyarin actually wants to correct the errors of his colleagues, and to raise questions rather than answer them definitively. He assumes, therefore, a familiarity with Spain’s limpieza de sangre (blood purity laws first enacted in the late 15th century) and the ideas of Bartolomé de las Casas (a 16th-century missionary who quaintly suggested not brutalizing Africans and indigenous Americans). This approach will alienate many nonacademic readers — as will the reliance on secondary sources and the jargon-laden prose, with its discussion of “spatial and imaginative containers of Christian-ness.”

Which is not to say that “The Unconverted Self” is unenlightening. Boyarin has corrected many of my own assumptions. For instance, while I was used to thinking of Christian Europe as suffering from an excess of confidence, the impression that emerges here is one of profound insecurity. As Boyarin points out, Europe on the verge of colonialist expansion had a significant Muslim and Jewish and even pagan presence. Christians saw these populations as geographical and hermeneutical threats — hence the Christian rhetoric about “cruel Turks,” the Talmud-burning, the rigged debates between Christians and Jews.

One of the more interesting (and disturbing) sections of “The Unconverted Self” concerns how Christians defined what it meant to be human. In the 12th century, reason was supposedly the criterion — and if Jews did not demonstrate their capacity for reason by becoming Christian, then they must be something less than human. Later, when the Indians were “discovered,” their humanity also became an open question. Columbus habitually referred to them as “pieces.” Others theorized that the native peoples were descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel. While this might put them on the same (low) level as actual Jews, one ingeniously boneheaded friar suggested that it would be inappropriate to accuse the Indians of murdering Jesus, as their lost ancestors might have settled the Americas well before the life of Christ.

Much of “The Unconverted Self” is often needlessly complicated. But the merit of its complexity is that Boyarin presents no pat answers, no slogans, about the fraught relationship between the colonial powers and their “others,” whether they be Indian, Muslim or Jew. “We will never have a settled, synthetic picture,” he writes. “The past won’t sit still for us.” Nevertheless, studying the past does help us understand the present. While much of Western Europe is avowedly post-Christian, many Europeans still define themselves as not Muslim or not Jewish. Which suggests that in some ways, Europe hasn’t changed much in the past 500 years.

Gordon Haber is a frequent contributor to the Forward.


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